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Homeland Insecurity

The whole megillah: Crossing the globe, Jewish films examine immigration and identity

"It is part of morality not to be at home in one's home," Theodor Adorno wrote during World War II, while exiled from his native Germany in Los Angeles. For Jews—subject to centuries of persecution and dispossession, or having put down roots amid an unstable Middle East—a sense of displacement appears central to their identity. Many of the entries in this year's New York Jewish Film Festival (organized by the Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center) feature Jewish characters struggling humorously or tragically with the idea of home, a concept that repeatedly eludes them.

Consider the case of Ariel Makaroff (Daniel Hendler), antihero of Argentine director Daniel Burman's bittersweet comedy Lost Embrace (opening for a commercial run on January 28). Ariel spends most of his time loitering in the Buenos Aires mall where his older brother works as a shmatte salesman and his mother runs a lingerie boutique left to them by his father, who abandoned the family for life in Israel shortly after Ariel's birth.

Longing to emigrate, Ariel enlists the help of his grandmother, a Yiddish songstress with a Polish passport, in order to become a "European." Along the way, he uncovers some messy family secrets. The great charm of Burman's film lies not in its loose plot, but rather in its portrait of Jewish life amid the crumbling Argentine economy—where nothing sells, and the rabbi himself is leaving for Miami—as something suspended in time and permanently provisional.

Maurice Schwartz (center) in Tevye
photo: Steidl
Maurice Schwartz (center) in Tevye

Details

New York Jewish Film Festival
January 12 through 27
Walter Reade

"My homeland is where my legs are standing," director Daniel Blaufuks quotes his grandfather as saying in Under Strange Skies, a film essay about Jewish emigration to Lisbon during World War II, when the city served as a waiting room for those fleeing Hitler's march across Europe. Blaufuks's grandparents, German Jews, arrived in 1936; later, as many as 200,000 other refugees passed through, killing time while awaiting visas and passages to the New World. (Only a handful, including the director's family, stayed on after the war.) This compelling documentary weaves together home movies, archival footage, and quotes from refugees' writings to portray the overheated and anxious milieu of a city at the edge of a vast conflagration. It also conjures the uncanny sense of exile that lingered long after the conflict had ended.

The distinguished writer Amos Elon left his native Vienna for Palestine in 1933; his American-born wife, Beth, joined him in Israel in the 1960s. Their daughter Danae's documentary, Another Road Home, follows her search for Musa Obeidallah, the Palestinian man her parents hired to look after her as a child. The journey leads her from Paterson, New Jersey, where Musa's sons have immigrated, back to Battir, his village on the West Bank, and through complex and competing memories of family and home. To her credit, Danae Elon keeps the discomfort level rather high, but her film is marred by her seemingly unquestioned acceptance of her father's negativism regarding the future of the Jewish state. He is, after all, not the only authority on this subject, and it seems a bit too easy, near the end of one's life, to decide the game is over for everyone.

British director Paul Morrison appears to specialize in tales of Jewish longing for the gentile world. (His Solomon and Gaenor was a Romeo and Juliet story in Welsh and Yiddish.) Wondrous Oblivion, his latest, follows the adventures of David Wiseman, the 11-year-old son of Polish-Jewish refugees in south London, who adores cricket but lacks the skills to compete until his newly arrived Jamaican neighbor (Delroy Lindo) starts to coach him. The year is 1960—racial tensions run high, but David and his neighbor's daughter are soon trading mangoes and bagels. Still, the real love story here is between a boy and his sport. Wondrous Oblivion veers perilously close to cliché, but it's redeemed by fine performances and the warmth of its characters.

And speaking of Jewish longing for the gentile world, remember Tevye the milkman, whose faith is sorely tested by his daughter's love for a Ukrainian intellectual? Those put off by the thought of Alfred Molina in Fiddler on the Roof might try Tevye, Yiddish theater star and director Maurice Schwartz's 1939 version of the Sholem Aleichem classic, in which he plays the earthy and long-suffering dairyman of Boyberik with just the right mixture of irony and compassion.

Tevye ends with the milkman's family and his goat heading off for the Holy Land under the shadow of European persecution. Meanwhile, most of Hollywood, on the eve of World War II, remained willfully ignorant of Germany's threat. Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust, a rather plodding documentary on a rich subject, is strongest while detailing the early years of denial by Jewish studio executives, who feared appearing partisan if they made anti-German films, and the immediate post-war era, when television took more risks, like the episode of This Is Your Life that featured an Auschwitz survivor. But director Daniel Anker poses no uncomfortable questions about the current proliferation of Holocaust-themed films—more, we are meant to assume, is simply better. And in the end, alas, all roads lead uncritically to Schindler's List.

 
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